The Party of Jefferson Davis
by Charles Lemos, Tue Apr 12, 2011 at 04:50:03 PM EDT
CNN has an interesting poll out on the views of Americans on the Civil War and its causes.
Roughly one in four Americans said they sympathize more with the Confederacy than the Union, a figure that rises to nearly four in ten among white Southerners.
When asked the reason behind the Civil War, whether it was fought over slavery or states' rights, 52 percent of all Americas said the leaders of the Confederacy seceded to keep slavery legal in their state, but a sizeable 42 percent minority said slavery was not the main reason why those states seceded.
"The results of that question show that there are still racial, political and geographic divisions over the Civil War that still exists a century and a half later," CNN Polling Director Holland Keating said.
When broken down by political party, most Democrats said southern states seceded over slavery, independents were split and most Republicans said slavery was not the main reason that Confederate states left the Union. Republicans were also most likely to say they admired the leaders of the southern states during the Civil War, with eight in 10 Republicans expressing admiration for the leaders in the South, virtually identical to the 79 percent of Republicans who admired the northern leaders during the Civil War.
In my earlier essay, I noted on how the Civil War is the defining event in American history transforming our sense of nationhood and what it means to be an American. From saying the United States are to saying the United States is encapsulates what the War ultimately accomplished in cultural and political terms. That change in our speech is transcendental underscoring the nature of the country as one country and not fifty separate sovereign states.
But there has been a second transformation, albeit one more recent, that is truly rather remarkable though frankly bizarre to this observer and that is how the Republican party has gone from being the "Party of Lincoln" to the "Party of Jefferson Davis."
That transformation really began in the wake of World War II when the Democratic Party, long the dominant political force in the South, began on the national level to move legislatively against the quid quo pro that had existed since Reconstruction that allowed segregation to form the bedrock of Southern life. By 1948, Storm Thurmond of South Carolina had bolted to form his Dixiecrat insurgency candidacy. In the early 1960s when the Civil Rights Movement brought the undemocratic nature of Southern race-based institutions crashing down, white Southerners began a mass exit towards the Republican party. That exit would largely be completed in 1980 when Ronald Reagan in his first campaign speech as the Republican nominee went to Philadelphia, Mississippi where 16 years before three civil rights workers had been brutally murdered to invoke the cause of "states' rights" which for white southerners translates into nothing more than their presumed God-given right to discriminate against anyone who isn't like them.
Southerners have always been more conservative than the rest of the nation. And while in the era before the Great Depression, one could find liberal progressives and conservatives in both parties in the post Civil Rights era that fixture of the American political system began to unravel as white Southerners joined en masse with other conservatives to take over the Republican party. Even as late as the early 1980s, it was possible for men like Jacob Javits, Nelson Rockefeller, Charles Mathias, and Edward Brooke to be part of the GOP. Today, a GOP moderate like Lincoln Chafee is unwelcome in the Republican party.
The fact that both of the two long dominant political parties in the United States had liberal and conservative wings is something that allowed for grand bipartisan coalitions to be formed at critical junctures in the nation's history. Indeed, the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 would not have passed if not for the support it received from liberal Republicans.
The filmmaker Ken Burns notes that "American think themselves an uncompromising people but our greatest strength is compromise and when it broke down we killed each other in great numbers. This is the lesson the Civil War at its heart. Compromise is the essence of democratic conversation." Unfortunately, compromise is not word in the vocabulary in the Party of Jefferson Davis.